Four trillion dollars of ongoing road construction projects pose a threat to the world’s net-zero pledges, finds a new Energy Monitor investigation. 

Data from GlobalData, shared exclusively with Energy Monitor, shows that new road-building projects around the world are worth an estimated $3.4trn, while major ongoing road upgrades are worth $0.7trn. Asia-Pacific is investing around half of the global total in roads, followed by Europe and North America. 

“Road projects” are defined here as anything that constitutes a causeway, highway, flyover, road tunnel, street, highway or underpass. While the data is drawn from primary sources by a large team of analysts who “strive for comprehensive coverage”, data collection limitations mean that some construction projects may get overlooked, says GlobalData analyst Chideesh Gangadharan. This means that these figures are likely an underestimate. 

While trillions are being invested in new roads, more than 90% of the world’s economy is now committed to net zero – an endpoint that pathways show will require a significant behavioural shift away from business-as-usual road travel, and towards alternatives like public transport, walking and cycling. 

Even at net zero, the world will still need an expansive network of roads, but these will only be compatible with net zero if they are occupied by electric vehicles (EVs). Great swathes of the world do not currently have policies in place to ensure that the shift from internal combustion engines to EVs will take place. 

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“It is outrageous that climate priorities don’t get reflected in infrastructure investments when our cities are already overwhelmed with toxic air, traffic congestion and noise,” says Barbara Stoll from the Brussels-based NGO Transport and Environment. “We know that more roads just means more cars. 

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“As the climate emergency is becoming ever more present in our lives, governments should be tackling this by prioritising cleaner and more people-centred infrastructure such as cycling, walking, public and shared transport modes,” she adds.

Chris Todd, founder and director of the UK-based campaigning group Transport Action Network, says: “The data here shows that there is too much of a business-as-usual assumption that roads are the best way to encourage economic growth – but we are living in a climate and ecological emergency, and simply keeping the foot on the accelerator will only make matters worse.” 

“Net zero in transport is based on two pillars: One is that we switch to sustainable fuels – whether electricity or biofuels – and the other is that we make transport more efficient and effective,” says Maria Xylia, senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). “If road projects are not combined with sufficient incentives for simultaneously reducing car volumes and promoting electrification, then we have a problem.” 

A transition to EVs is by no means guaranteed, despite booming sales worldwide. The Accelerating to Zero Coalition – an coalition of countries formed at COP27 in Egypt to drive forward a transition to climate-neutral transportation – currently has just 41 country members (out of 220 overall members, which include regions, cities, and companies), with the world’s largest car markets, the US and China, not having signed up. In the US, the coalition does include important sub-national government members such as the states of California and New York.

Meanwhile, in Europe – a region that has led the EV charge – there are currently fears that an agreed 2035 internal combustion engine phase-out may be undermined by Germany and Italy

Reducing car volumes on the road makes good sense as the world moves towards net zero, as communal travel is much more energy efficient, while producing more EVs than necessary threatens critical minerals supplies. The way to push for less cars is to introduce new public transport incentives and encourage behavioural change. 

Indeed, the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 analysis calls for a “shift to cycling, walking, ridesharing or taking buses for trips in cities that would otherwise be made by car, as well as replacing regional air travel by high‐speed rail in regions where this is feasible”. The analysis states that 1.7 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide can be avoided through behavioural change by 2030, with around 45% of those savings coming from transport. 

According to the SEI’s Xylia, “investments in walking, cycling and public transport need to be on par with [those in] other parts of the transport [network]” if governments are to fully decarbonise the sector. 

However, investment in construction projects involving ‘greener’ forms of transport pales in comparison to that which is being invested in roads, shows data from GlobalData.

Reimagining infrastructure policy

Even if national infrastructure strategies were aligned with net zero, significant amounts would still need to be invested regularly to maintain existing roads, which “tend to have a lifespan of around 50 years”, notes Xylia. 

There will always be a need for an extensive road network. “Road is key to provide good connectivity, especially in remote or low-density areas where it is hard for public transport to provide cost-efficient solutions,” points out a spokesperson for the International Transport Forum (ITF) at the OECD. 

However, the latest ITF Transport Outlook, published in May 2023, shows that in a ‘High Ambition/Low Carbon Scenario’, the investment need for roads is reduced, while investments in public transport and mass transit modes should increase. The report recommends adopting long-term strategic planning for transport and land use to allow for decisions based on a vision of the future transport system, rather than being bound to incrementally expanding the existing one. 

Read more from this author: Nick Ferris

There is a precedent for this kind of reimagined national infrastructure policy in Wales, which in February 2023 scrapped all major road-building projects due to environmental concerns following a year-long review. 

The Welsh Government said that all future road projects must pass strict criteria that proves they will not increase carbon emissions, nor increase the number of cars on the road. 

The Welsh policy is a marked contrast to what is happening across the border in England, where a Department for Transport policy released in March requires policymakers to ignore the negative climate impact of road-building, and instead push for tree planting and nature-based solutions around those projects.

The UK government also recently blocked the release of emissions figures behind its transport decarbonisation plan, which would have demonstrated how car use has to decrease for the UK to be on track for net zero. 

For Todd at Transport Action Network, modern infrastructure planning should think more holistically about where services are located, and should also encompass factors like the advent of digital interconnectivity

“If you build an out-of-town development to provide goods and services, then everyone will have to use their cars, but if you build something closer to where people live, and ensure public transport and active travel considerations are part of the planning process, then you can significantly alter behaviour of consumers,” he says. 

“Investing more in digital connectivity also enables more flexible working and information sharing, without necessarily always having to travel to every single meeting.” 

Equity in road policy for net zero

The majority of observations made in this analysis are true of wealthy countries, such as in Europe or North America, which already have extensive road networks. In this context, it is important to acknowledge that much of the world is in dire need of new infrastructure investment to bring it on par with the Global North. 

In Africa, for example, just 43% of roads are paved and 30% of all paved roads are in South Africa. In addition, around 80% of goods are transported by roads on the continent, meaning that the absence of good roads is seriously holding back the ability of countries to develop economically. 

The Center for Global Development, a Washington, DC-based think tank, estimates $130bn–170bn will be required per year for Africa to close its paved road infrastructure gap, while significantly more funds would be required to develop more road links in remote areas. 

In this context, it is notable that both Europe and North America are spending more on their road networks than Africa, despite those continents having significantly fewer people, and much larger and better maintained extant road networks. 

This article was amended on 11 June 2023 to clarify the fact that the Accelerating to Zero Coalition is a coalition, not an alliance, as well as the fact that the Accelerating to Zero Coalition has 220 overall members, and not 41 as previously suggested.